Late in the summer of 2006, Neal stopped through Cincinnati for breakfast and told me about an exciting program he had just completed in England combining history and architecture. It sounded like just the thing I might want to do the following summer in 2007! Neal offered to write a recommendation for me, but it had to be in at the beginning of March he said.
We went back to circling in our own orbits after that, and it was just a few months later that the fateful article appeared in The New Yorker about KA that led my friend Peter to call Eric, the headmaster at KA, suggesting he meet this “younger friend” urging Eric that he would indeed want me to join the founding faculty of his “exciting venture.” Soon Eric would email me, asking for the resume; a January, 2007 meeting would be set, and wheels set in motion. The official job interview would take place at Le Bernardin, often cited as the finest restaurant in New York (courtesy of the largesse of my friends Anne and Peter!). That night Eric casually mentioned to me that there was an opening to head the History Department at KA. Oh, please pass the expensive amuses bouches, please? Gulp.
As I spent January and February pondering whether the exodus from New York to Jordan was really the next “assignment” for me, I called my friend Neal to tell him that I was not going to apply for the cool British history/architecture program, but that I hadn’t actually been procrastinating, just sitting on top of a cosmic earthquake instead. I might need to move instead of spending the summer studying the English Country Home. I had not disclosed to many people that the opportunity at KA was opening before me—I was figuring it all out for myself still. But I revealed to Neal that there was this “situation,” an opportunity to really change my life and broaden my horizons. Dare I jump at the chance? I would get to help start a school—from scratch!
Neal couldn’t believe the story—not because it was that outrageous—but because he was undergoing the very same thought process with a similar situation and opportunity! What a strange coincidence and parallel, that two erstwhile, lifelong friends both faced opportunities to give up everything they knew, move to a new place, and start fresh, scary, but utterly new chapters. Neal had heard about a job opening, a museum directorship on a Caribbean island, and decided to pursue the job application. Neal would get to help resurrect a museum—practically from scratch!
Over the next few weeks Neal and I talked often; in fact, if I had added up all our conversations of the last 20 years, I am pretty darn sure that the conversations in late winter, 2007, amounted to several decades-worth of our catch-up conversations. And the conversations were not just checking in, asking about family, reminiscing about our youth—these were probing, helpful, supportive conversations of two friends, both over 40, trying to figure out directions in life. We talked about “the signs” if the job was the right answer—how do we even know what is the right answer. We rejoiced in the offers of the jobs for each other—and we worried about how our decisions would affect family and friends. But most of all, we supported each other and helped each other think through the ramifications. These were heady, memorable discussions. We had known each other since roughly the age of 11, and finally gotten to be the friend and mate we had always supposed we could be for one another.
I moved at the end of July; Neal moved at the beginning of September. I started a blog; Neal even borrowed the backdrop of this blog for the inauguaration of his on-line journal. Neal traveled the 100 miles between Columbus and Cincinnati for a good-bye party the day before I stepped on that plane in July; my sister traveled the 100 miles from Cincinnati to Columbus to bid our friend adieu at his good-bye party. In our blogs we both noted the heat in our new surroundings, and both acknowledged the pang of missing not only family and friends, but the absence of those basic, American creature-comforts that smooth over the bumps in life.
In his introductory blog entry (if you would like to visit Neal’s blog, the address is www.hitch-n-tci.blogspot.com) Neal quoted a movie I have never seen, but a line that resonates with both of us. The movie is Angel Eyes with Jennifer Lopez and Jim Caviezel, and Neal quotes a line when Jim's character moves into a dump and says:
"Do you know when someone says, ‘let's start from scratch?’
Well, this is what it looks like. This is scratch."
I loved the line.
Welcome to Scratch!
Neal’s “scratch” is trying to get a house and a museum on a picture-postcard island in shape. My “scratch” is trying to teach young people to think—young people who have never had to think. My “scratch” is kind of intellectual archaeology, digging into their brains, encouraging them to observe the world around them, connect to that world, and help them realize that they are historians craving to understand the vicissitudes of world events! Some of my students are from poor families, just a few years away from nomadic Bedouin existence. Some of my students are heirs to thrones in Kuwait and Bahrain. None has really enjoyed the liberation of independent thinking.
In the last two weeks I have offered my first quiz—after what I believed to be careful preparation, we took that quiz! Let me just offer a few of their answers to questions:
Student Examples from The First Quiz
Why did the Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer kill himself in 1994?
On the first day of school I stated that the goal of this History class was to wonder what it felt like to live at a particular time in history. We have now studied 7 things that took place at particular times in history. Which of these “ cultural artifacts” (i.e. paintings, movies, etc.) we have studied best helps you understand what it felt like to live in another time period? Choose one of these, and explain how it specifically helps you stand in another historical period well.
“It helps me to know how to ask questions and what are questions should I ask and have the answer to be able to study anything that related to history and to explain it in a historical way.”
“The movie clip about Ghandi really helped me live in that time period because the actor playing Ghandi put so much emotion and thoughts to him getting kiked off the train because of his race.”
“The Great Cat Massacre describes the chaos and how they delt with the problem.”
“Paintings, I think is the best one helped me and I think you too, because you gave us a lot of paintings these days, so you care about paintings, and me, I have choosen the paintings, because they really have a good meaning, like the position, the colours, the question we ask, they help me understand.”
“I think the painting The First Stage of Cruelty it is like you imagine yourself there at that precise moment in time.”
“Stage One of Cruelty I really felt like I understood the time period and what was going on in the picture.”
“With The Great Cat Massacre back then it was extremely different and maybe even hard and imagining myself there at the time I feel so bad and so disgusted.”
“The First Stage of Cruelty helped me to know what sth happened in the past can change the historian’s point about the future.”
“Movies help me a lot to understand and to stand in another historical well because you can see everything from a screen and it is really good way to know what happened in the past and what is going to happen. You hear, you see, and you understand from watching movies. You just feel like you were there and you saw everything that happened. And you forget that you are on earth in our time, you feel like you watched everything that happened in the past when you are watching movies.”
In another question I asked what particular fact had helped them understand a time period better:
“This whole week was perfect for me because I truly liked history and your way of teaching really helped me thank you very much I truly appreciate it, and because of this whole thing and my grades are pretty good I everyday call my mom and tell her about how I did and of course or I hope so she is proud of me. I learned a lot about the Lebanese article because it gives you other opinions and how they feel at their country with the war thing and what to do with the history classes.”
Welcome to Scratch.
More to come…